Don’t Say That! Hike Her Skirt and other activities in #historical #fiction #wordplay #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic

Some concepts you’d think had been around forever. But I was surprised when I learned that a woman didn’t “hike” her skirt in the 18th century. I mean, it’s in so much fiction that I made the assumption it was authentic to the time. Only I was dead wrong. I don’t like being wrong, but in this word sleuthing I came upon that reality more than once, let me tell you!

Let’s start with the fact that the earliest recorded use of the word “hike” in my OED to mean “walk or march vigorously or laboriously” or “to walk for pleasure” is in 1809. So my A More Perfect Union historical romances set in the 1780s couldn’t use that word to even mean to go out into nature and take a long walk. The part about pulling up clothing? Not so fast! Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)  has to say:

b. intr. To work upwards out of place. Const. up.

c 1873 Schele de Vere MS. Notes 488 (D.A.E.), What makes y[ou]r dress hike up so?    1890 Amer. Dialect Notes I. 61 The curtain hikes or hikes up.    1902 G. H. Lorimer Lett. Merchant ix. 119 We boys who couldn’t walk across the floor without feeling that our pants had hiked up till they showed our feet to the knee,‥didn’t like him.    1948 Sat. Even. Post 4 Dec. 127/2 When I sit down, it hikes up.

1873! That’s nearly a century after my stories. Hearty sigh. So instead of the one word, I had to use something like “she grabbed her skirt to lift it up out of her way as she climbed the stairs.” I guess there’s a reason we get around to using “hike” as shorthand! Like when you raise a price, it gets hiked up, so do the pant legs and skirts. But not until late 19th century. So.

Other words related to activities and games I had to find replacements for include acrobatic (b1861), catapulted (as a verb, b1848), cartwheeled (as a verb, b1864), cavort (b1794), and swat (b1796). A couple others I want to talk more about, but you can see here why checking most every word I write (at least until I became more familiar with which ones I needed to avoid!) became important. Unless we’re talking the articles (i.e., the, a, an). Those didn’t change from the earliest times as far as I can tell.

Let’s look a bit more closely at two other words that we use today without a blink of an eye but weren’t used in the same way in the 1700s.

First up, “scan.” As a verb meaning to look over quickly, like scanning the crowd or the sky. A synonym is “skim” which became my replacement word after I dug into scan a bit more to find out when in time I could use it as a verb. The OED:

6. a. To look at searchingly, examine with the eyes.

1798 S. Lee Canterb. T., Young Lady’s T. ii. 251 His wild‥eyes now scanned heaven impatiently.    1810 Scott Lady of L. ii. xxi, While Roderick scann’d, For her dear form, his mother’s band.    1840 Dickens Barn. Rudge ii, ‘Humph’, he said, when he had scanned his features, ‘I don’t know you’. …

b. To search (literature, a text, a list, etc.) quickly or systematically for particular information or features.

1926 Rec. Geol. Surv. India LIX. 202 On scanning this table it will be observed that the pyrope molecule is present in quantity‥only in one garnet.    1950 Amer. Documentation I. 81 The rapid selector employs an optical-electronic system for scanning a reel of motion picture film on which are entered both abstracts and corresponding index entries. …

So at the earliest, the story had to take place in 1798 for scan to not be anachronistic for my characters. So instead, I used “perused” or “skimmed” or “let his gaze drift over the crowd” or some such descriptive passage.

The other word I want to point out is “handshake.” As a noun, it first appeared in 1873:

a. A shake of the hand: cf. hand-shaking.

1873 Tristram Moab xviii. 344, I gave him a hearty hand⁓shake.    1878 Browning Poets Croisic 130 Let me return your handshake!

But then as a verb, it’s even later:

[Back-formation from hand-shaking.]

intr. To shake hands. So ˈhandˌshaker.

1898 H. James Two Magics 8 We handshook and ‘candlestuck’, as somebody said, and went to bed.    1905 Westm. Gaz. 2 Nov. 12/1 As the line moves forward each hand-shaker is steadily pushed along.    1928 Daily Express 28 Aug. 8/3 Hearty handshakers. …

So my character couldn’t accept another’s handshake until almost the 20th century. They could, of course, shake hands, clasp hands, etc. Sigh. Are you seeing a trend? I do! People came up with ways to shorten the phrasing to save time and space. Think how we use acronyms/initialisms and emojis today. All to say more in less space. We’re continuing an historical language evolution, my friends.

I was surprised also by the number of words I think of as “theatrical” that were anachronistic for the 1700s. I’ll talk more about those next week. Until then!


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Amy's ChoiceWhen Amy Abernathy’s childhood sweetheart, Benjamin Hanson, leaves to fight in the American War for Independence without a word of goodbye, Amy picks up the pieces of her heart and chooses independence. When Benjamin returns unexpectedly, Amy flees to the country to help her pregnant sister and protect her heart.

Benjamin Hanson knows he hurt Amy, but he also knows he can make it up to her after he completes his mission. Then he learns that Amy has been captured by renegade soldiers. Now Benjamin faces his own choice: free the sassy yet obstinate woman he’s never stopped loving or protect Charles Town from the vengeful British occupation.

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